The best beach in the U.S. is not easy to choose because it’s a matter of opinion. What do you love about your favorite beach? What criteria do you use to decide? What are the most important attributes?
First, the choices might be best limited to the “continental U.S.” because not everyone can go to Hawaii or the territories of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, etc. If it’s not accessible, it’s not the best beach. Many websites provide lists of the best beaches, and most of those are located in Florida and California. So your search might easily be concentrated there.
And you could limit your choices to “ocean beaches.” That prevents including beaches on lakes and along rivers and also eliminates those “artificial beaches” in water parks, giant shopping malls, and huge hotels, as well as “virtual beaches” on your computer.
So what constitutes a great beach? Some people enjoy beach bars, upscale hotels, fancy restaurants, even shopping along developed beaches. Others prefer swimming, hiking, kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding, picnicking, flying kites, camping, parasailing, or snorkeling, while someone else might choose kite surfing, birding, playing beach volleyball, jet skiing, surf fishing or deep-sea fishing, windsurfing, sunbathing, building sand castles, or touring museums, forts, historical sites, and visitor centers. But those activities aren’t really related to the beach itself, as you can find those in big cities, lakeside resorts, and other tourist areas. Beachcombing and surfing are two of the few activities intrinsically related to the beach you’re on, but they usually depend on the weather as well as the surroundings.
So, when choosing the best beach, consider its “beachness.” What are the qualities of a good beach? Technically, a beach is “the part of a shore washed by the tide or waves.” Without all the distractions in the lists above, which beach in the U.S. best exemplifies beachness? USA Today surveyed a myriad of beach lovers. They selected Langdon Beach, part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, as their number one pick. This fabulous beach is on Santa Rosa Island, a forty-mile-long barrier island south of Pensacola, Florida.
But check it out for yourself to see if you agree. Start at Pensacola in the Florida Panhandle. On the way, head southwest of Pensacola to Fort Barrancas and the National Naval Aviation Museum, a fascinating, free museum. From there, usually several mornings a week, the famed Blue Angels, the Navy’s crack flying aerobatic team, practice over the bay, so listen and watch for them overhead. And in that area, you can also visit the Pensacola lighthouse constructed in 1859, painted solid black, from its mid-section up, with white below. Climb the 177 steps to the top for a gorgeous view of the area.
To reach Langdon Beach on the national seashore, sixteen miles southeast of Pensacola, you’ll cross two highway bridges: U.S. Hwy. 98 from the north, across Pensacola Bay Bridge, through the small community of Gulf Breeze, and south on the Hwy. 399 toll bridge. If you have time, go east from Gulf Breeze to the Naval Live Oaks Preserve, where, in 1828, President John Quincy Adams authorized the government to establish a forest of live oaks to provide for ship-building materials. It’s a beautiful and unique historical and scenic area. The bridges provide delightful views of the vivid blue waters of Pensacola Bay and Santa Rosa Sound, with the Gulf of Mexico ahead. On Santa Rosa Island, at the junction with Fort Pickens Road, you’ll spot many condos, hotels, and restaurants, rental of kayaks and jet skis, miniature golf, and rentals of sailboats, bicycles, motor scooters, go-karts, parasailing, boat charters, extreme water sports, etc. Pensacola Beach, the town, also has a renowned top-notch beach, ranked 5th best by TripAdvisor. Turn west on Fort Pickens Road, where, for a couple of miles, there are additional condos, vacation rentals, and restaurants. Then you’ll reach the Gulf Islands National Seashore, where you’ll leave the high-rises behind and beyond which most private enterprise is prohibited. This national seashore stretches for most of 160 miles from west to east, part in Mississippi and the rest along the Gulf Coast of the Florida Panhandle, interspersed with privately owned property along the way. Two thirds of the park is under water, as its boundaries include waters of the Gulf. To the south is the Gulf of Mexico, and on the north is Pensacola Bay.
A boat launch is provided on the gulf side, near the entrance fee station where you’ll pay $15 for a seven-day car pass to enter Gulf Islands National Seashore . Farther on is Park West, with many picnic shelters and a boardwalk across the dunes to the Gulf. Past that, campers will stop at the ranger station to pay for overnight camping ($26 per site, half price for seniors) and receive instructions on locations, rules, facilities, and activities. The campground is named Fort Pickens, as is the actual fort, the 850-acre site which occupies the west end of Santa Rosa Island, with structures still standing and available for exploring. Advance registration for overnight camping is highly recommended. (call 1-877-444-6777.) The campground provides picnic tables, electricity, water, fire rings, and restrooms with showers. The gulf and bay are not visible from the campgrounds because of heavy stands of trees, including live oaks, palms, and pines, which provide shelter and nesting places for the many birds and animals of the area.
Half a mile past the ranger station, Langdon Beach, on the south side of the road, provides a large parking area, a boardwalk through the dunes and sea oats, restrooms and changing facilities, and perhaps the best beach in the continental United States. This shoreline, for many miles, is often called “the Emerald Coast” because of the amazing deep blue-green of the water, with the gulf there contrasting with the soft white sand, like sugar, which has been washed downstream for millennia from the fine quartz eroded from granite deposits in the Appalachian Mountains. It’s so clean it squeaks when you walk on it, pleasing the tenderest of feet. Underwater sand bars offshore collect the flotsam and jetsam common on most beaches, leaving this area almost totally free of debris. It’s wonderful for most beachgoers, but of course, it’s a disadvantage if you’re a beachcomber, though after a storm, watch for perfect sand dollars to wash up. The water lapping up on the beach is rather shallow, with the seabed sloping gradually, allowing the sea to maintain a relatively warm temperature with few large waves, perfect for swimming from March through November, with lifeguards provided during the peak season. Surf fishing is allowed without a fishing license on this shore. Be aware that if the wind isn’t blowing while you’re walking in the late evenings, perhaps watching the sunsets, you may need insect repellent because of the mosquitoes. And of course, like any beach area, you’ll want to be alert for sharks, jellyfish, rip currents, stingrays, Portuguese men-of-war, barnacle-covered rocks, sudden storms, and sunburn.
The campground is northwest of Langdon Beach, just a few minutes’ walk. The beach from Langdon all the way to the western tip of the island, approximately two miles away, is just as inviting, so if you’d like some privacy, walk on until you’re away from other beachgoers.
One disadvantage for dog owners is that dogs are not allowed on the beaches of the national seashore, except in one area, a park for dogs with their owners, not far from the entrance station. Throughout most of this national seashore, pets are allowed on the trails, multiuse paths, in campgrounds, and on park roads, as long as they are on leashes, and their waste must be picked up.
Besides the beach, the Fort Pickens area of the national seashore contains a visitor center, camp store, a fishing jetty, hiking trails, an amphitheater, and the fort itself, which was built between 1829 and 1834, for defense of Pensacola. Used by the Union army during the Civil War, it was later modernized with concrete gun batteries; it stood guard up until the 1940s when it was decommissioned. Self-guided hiking trails allow history buffs to explore and understand the fort.
Nearby Perdido Key , the next island, about five miles to the west, has been listed by GORP (Great Outdoor Recreation Pages) as the best swimming beach, though not the best beach overall. And several nearby state parks provide many other attractions, so this area is a haven for beachgoers, with Langdon Beach perhaps the best of all. So if your goal is to enjoy the best beach in the continental U.S., go to Langdon Beach in the Gulf Islands National Seashore. And if you want to enjoy the other attributes of beach life, they’re only minutes away from your perfect beach!